Sea salt and brandy truffles

Gift box of homemade sea salt and brandy truffles
Truffles and Christmas go together like Batman and Robin. Or peanut butter and jam. Or gin, tonic and sunshine. They’re the perfect treat to have around the house over the Christmas holidays, but they also make a lovely present for someone special, and they’re surprisingly straightforward to make (once you master the rolling!). Even better, they can be customised so that they are totally unique to you. I think the flavourings in these ones work particularly well with dark chocolate, with a hit of festive brandy and the odd burst of sea salt, but orange zest and Cointreau would be gorgeous, as would coconut-rum truffles rolled in desiccated coconut, or even sea salt and peanut butter truffles.
Ingredients for homemade sea salt and brandy truffles
Ingredients (makes about 20-25 truffles)
150g dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
150ml double cream
25g butter
Pinch of sea salt flakes
Brandy
Cocoa powder

Method
1. Finely chop the dark chocolate into as small pieces as you can – you could also pop it in a food processor if you have one.
Chopped dark chocolate for sea salt and brandy truffles
Tip into a large bowl.
Chopped dark chocolate ready to add cream and butter
2. Heat the cream until it just begins to simmer. Remove from the heat and add the butter, stirring until it has melted.
Adding butter to the simmering double cream
3. Slowly pour the cream and butter over the chocolate, whisking continually until you have a smooth mixture.
Adding cream and butter to the chopped chocolate
Plain truffle mix
4. Add a generous pinch of sea salt, and enough brandy to taste. To be honest, my first batch didn’t quite have the hit of Christmas booze that I was hoping for (I had used 4 tsp of brandy) – the alcohol flavour was too subtle, so next time I’ll add at least 6 tsp. However, you can adjust this entirely to your own preference – taste after adding each tsp since you can always add more but you can’t take it back out!
Flavouring the truffle mix with sea salt and brandy
5. Chill in the fridge overnight until the mixture is solid. Sieve a few dessert spoons of coca powder onto a large plate (you do need to sieve it as cocoa powder tends to have a few lumps in it) and get another large plate ready for the truffles.
Preparing to shape the truffles
6. Now comes the hardest part, since the truffle mixture can seem really difficult to work with. The trick is to have your hands as cold as possible! Believe me, it’s a revelation. I was running my hands under cold water in between every one or two truffles and they rolled up so much easier. Use a teaspoon to break up the chocolate and then roll a small amount of mixture into a rough ball.
Shaping the sea salt and brandy truffles
7. Roll the truffles in cocoa powder (or icing sugar, or chocolate sprinkles, or desiccated coconut, or finely chopped pistachios…) and place on a clean plate. Chill in the fridge until ready to serve.
Shaped sea salt and brandy truffles
These can be stored in the fridge for a good 3-5 days (or even longer in the freezer), or box them up and proudly present them to their recipient. Serve in the afternoon for unexpected guests or after dinner with a strong coffee.
Homemade sea salt and brandy truffles served with coffee
I hope you all enjoy the next week of festive fun…only 6 sleeps til Christmas!

Mincemeat puff pastry swirls

Christmas mincemeat puff pastry rolls
I am really pleased with this new recipe. It’s going to be my festive go-to recipe for whipping up a last minute sweet treat from now on. Basically, it’s a mince pie in disguise, and one that is even easier to make and store (which is really saying something, since mince pies aren’t exactly the trickiest kitchen task and don’t take up an awfully lot of room in the freezer). This mincemeat-packed pastry is the most efficient use of freezer space and can be put together in a matter of minutes. I used shop-bought puff pastry for this recipe because it’s all about convenience, but if you have time on your hands you can always make yours from scratch.

If you’re organised and already have homemade mincemeat ready to use then it will be perfect in this recipe. If not, then you can buy lovely mincemeat in the supermarkets, and we’ll perk it up with some orange zest, fresh pear and obligatory Christmas spirit anyway.
Ingredients for mincemeat puff pastry rolls
Ingredients (makes 24 pastries)
300g mincemeat
1 orange
Splash of brandy
2 ripe pears
1 lemon
500g all-butter puff pastry

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/Gas Mark 6. Measure out the mincemeat into a bowl and add the zest of the orange and a splash of brandy. Mix together.
Adding orange zest and brandy to the homemade mincemeat
Homemade traditional Christmas mincemeat
2. Peel, core and finely dice the pears. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the pear to stop the pieces from browning.
Finely diced ripe pears
3. Generously flour the work surface and roll out the puff pastry into a large rectangle, with the long edge facing you. The pastry should be about 0.5cm thick.
Rolling out the puff pastry
4. Gently spread the mincemeat onto the pastry, right up to the edges of the sides, but leaving an inch gap at the front and back. Sprinkle the pear chunks on top.
Spreading the mincemeat and pear on the puff pastry
5. Roll the pastry into one long sausage-shape. Start by folding over the long edge closest to you (as shown below) and then roll up gently, using both hands. It will get easier as the roll gets thicker.
Beginning to roll the puff pastry
Rolled puff pastry filled with mincemeat
6. Trim the edges from the pastry roll to neaten it up. Cut it in half to make two manageable rolls. Chill in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm up the pastry and make it easier to slice. Alternatively you can wrap the rolls in cling film and leave in the freezer, ready to slice and bake whenever you like.
Tidying the ends of the puff pastry roll
7. Remove the firmed pastry rolls and slice into 24 circles (or 12 if you’re just using one of the rolls). Space out on a large baking tray lined with baking parchment.
Sliced puff pastry roll ready to bake
8. Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown and crisp on the outside. Leave to cool on a wire rack (or eat them while they’re warm!).
Baked puff pastry rolls stuffed with mincemeat
Cooling the mincemeat puff pastry rolls
Dust these flaky, spiced pastries with icing sugar for the perfect snowy effect if you like. Serve with steaming mugs of tea, coffee or (preferably) mulled wine.
Christmas mincemeat puff pastry swirls
Note: if cooking from the freezer, remove the roll about 30 minutes before you slice it. Cut off as many pieces as you need. Use a sturdy and very sharp knife, as the frozen pear makes the roll particularly hard. Bake as instructed above. Feel smug about how organised you are.

Homemade mincemeat

Close-up of traditional British mincemeat
Traditional mincemeat is a great little recipe to make around this time of year. It’s incredibly simple, keeps well and your homemade jar can be whipped out the cupboard at a moment’s notice if you’re in need of emergency mince pies. If you’ve already made your Christmas pudding (like this one here…) then it’s highly likely that you have leftover dried fruits or chopped peel or even some suet lurking in the cupboards. This is a great way to use them up, and with 18 days left til Christmas (yes, that’s right, EIGHTEEN DAYS) now is the perfect time to do so. If you can resist, it’s best to leave this recipe to infuse for 2 weeks; and if you manage there will be a jar of perfect mincemeat sitting in your cupboard to use in the days leading up to Christmas – and of course, most importantly, on Christmas Day itself.

Before you begin making this recipe make sure you sterilise the jar, or jars, you are using to store the mincemeat in. You can do this in a few different ways. If you have a dishwasher then the easiest method is to put your already clean jars through a hot rinse. If not then you can wash them out with boiling water (or heat with water in them in a microwave until the water boils – I couldn’t do this since my jar has metal on it!) and leave to dry upside down either naturally or in a very low oven.
Ingredients for traditional Christmas mincemeat
Ingredients (makes enough mincemeat to fill a 2 litre jar)
600g mixed dried fruit e.g. raisins, currants, sultanas, cranberries, cherries
300g suet
90g chopped peel
250g soft brown sugar
¼ tsp mixed spice
¼ tsp ginger
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
½ fresh nutmeg, grated
1 lemon
1 Bramley apple, peeled and grated
100ml brandy
2 bay leaves

Method
1. Put all the dry ingredients except the bay leaves (so the dried fruit, suet, chopped peel, sugar and spices) in a large bowl. Mix well.
Dry ingredients for Christmas mincemeat
Mixing the dry ingredients for Christmas mincemeat
2. Add both the zest and juice of the lemon, along with the apple and brandy, and give everything a really thorough mix.
Adding the wet ingredients to traditional mincemeat
3. Carefully spoon the mincemeat into your sterilised jar(s) and push one or two bay leaves into the top. Seal and store for a couple of weeks.
Traditional British mincemeat
Mincemeat will store for a long time provided you have properly sterilised the jars – lots of recipes say up to 6 months, but I’m pretty sure I have used mincemeat from the year before and it tasted delicious.
Traditional Christmas mincemeat to be stored

Christmas pudding

Wrapping up the Christmas pudding for storing
Christmas pudding after the first steam
I know, I know: IT’S NOT EVEN DECEMBER YET, SHUT UP ABOUT CHRISTMAS. I feel ya. I’m a great believer in no Christmas decorations, shopping or music before December. Don’t get me wrong, I bloody love Christmas and all the festivities that go with it. The moment December 1st arrives I will be all Micheal Bublé on repeat, festively scented candles and wreath-making. Let’s savor the festive period for a few weeks, packing in as many glasses of mulled wine and repeats of Elf as possible. But let’s not drag it out too long until the sight of another mince pie makes you feel a bit queasy and the sound of Mariah Carey singing All I Want For Christmas makes you want to smash your head off a wall. Nobody needs that.

However, there are quite a few Christmas recipes that need weeks, if not months, of storing and maturing before they are ready, so in this case we’ll make an exception and think about Christmas early. The best of these recipes is, of course, Christmas pudding. This is my Grandma’s recipe and I can safely say that it is the best and only Christmas pudding recipe you will ever want or need. It’s an all-in-one Christmas dessert, with sweet dried fruits, festive spices and warming alcohol.

For me, there is something happy and sentimental about Christmas puddings. I love the traditions that come with making it, that are either old (hiding a sliver coin inside, which brings wealth in the new year to the finder) or new (for example, Colum and I having to nearly set fire to a kitchen each year during the flaming, or spiking the pudding with brandy from a syringe as it matures); the stories of forgotten Christmas puddings discovered at the back of the cupboards after years, which are still edible and in fact the tastiest ones of all; and the fun of the pudding on Christmas Day when the lights are dimmed, the flaming pudding is ceremoniously presented and my little cousin manages to pack away 5 large portions.

Traditionally, Christmas pudding is made on “Stir-up Sunday”, which is the last Sunday before the season of Advent and this year it is Sunday 23rd November. That’s this Sunday people! Also traditionally, everyone in the household has to give the mixture a stir and I guess this is another reason why I love this recipe so much. Gather everyone together this Sunday, fill your house with an early treat of Christmas smells and then enjoy the satisfaction when you pull out your matured homemade Christmas pudding in four and a half weeks time!
Ingredients for Christmas pudding
Ingredients (makes one small pudding)
85g plain flour
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
125g vegetarian suet – it doesn’t need to be vegetarian but I like to be prepared just in case
85g breadcrumbs
175g currants
175g raisins
125g sultanas
125g dark brown demerara sugar
85g chopped mixed peel
125g grated apples
Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
1 large egg
½ small wineglass of brandy
A bottle or can of stout
A well-washed silver coin

Method
1. Sift the flour, spices and salt into a large bowl.
Flour, spices and salt for sifting
Sieved flour, spices and salt
2. Add the suet, sugar, bread crumbs, dried fruit and peel, and mix very well.
Dry ingredients for Christmas pudding
Mixed dry ingredients for Christmas pudding
3. Add the grated apple and lemon rind, and mix well again.
Adding grated apple to the Christmas pudding mix
4. Beat the egg and add in, then add the lemon juice and brandy, and mix well one more time.
Adding brandy to the Christmas pudding mix
5. Add a little stout until the mixture is quite moist (but not too wet!). Usually a substantial amount of the bottle is leftover so one lucky helper will get to polish it off…
Grease your bowl well. Put about half the mixture in and then pop in your clean silver coin (don’t forget to remind everyone that there is a coin hidden inside when it comes to serving…we don’t want any chipped teeth!).
Hiding a silver coin in the Christmas pudding
Fill the bowl with the remaining mixture.
Christmas pudding mixture
6. Cover the pudding with cloth, foil or baking paper (or a combination) and tie tightly with string to keep out the steam.
Preparing the Christmas pudding for the first steam 1
Preparing the Christmas pudding for the first steam 2
Place on top of a small plate, in a large pan and fill with a few inches of water. Cover with a lid and steam on a low heat for 8 hours – keep an eye on the water level to make sure it doesn’t boil dry.
First steam of the Christmas pudding
7. When cool, wrap well in a few layers of new foil, baking paper or wax paper and tie tightly with string again. Store for at least 4 or 5 weeks, or any time longer!
Wrapping up the Christmas pudding for storing
8. On the day you are serving the pudding, re-steam in the same way for 3 hours. Top with a sprig of holly, flame with some lightly warmed brandy and serve with cream or, even better, homemade white sauce.

….and of course I can’t let this post go by without pointing out the adorable, and aptly lettered, bowl that I made this year’s pudding in, which was bought for me by my dad…

Sangria

Sangria
Last week was named Salad Week and we had different summer salads from sweetcorn salsa to refreshing watermelon to raw fennel. All delicious, healthy dishes, packed with strong flavours and perfect for summer eating. However, in the interest of balance this week will be all about booze and frying.

In our house, sangria means New Year (or Hogmanay as we call it here). A slightly odd combination, I’m not actually sure where it came from, but it’s now a firm family tradition. Sangria is one of my favourite alcoholic cocktails, and when I’m in Spain I can drink it by the bucket load with a bowl of olives and be happy with the world. It’s the perfect drink to make for a barbecue during the summer, or for any occasion that involves lots of people, as you can multiply up the quantities to serve as many as you like – just make sure you have a jug big enough!

This recipe is based on one from Katie Stewart’s Cookbook (our cooking bible, as I mentioned before), with a little extra booze and fruit thrown in for good measure. You can follow this exact recipe to start with, but adapt it to your own taste as you learn what works for you. I’ve had some sangrias in Spain that have enough liquor to get you under the table after just a couple of glasses (I remember one particular concoction at a beach bar which included nearly every spirit in the bar – actually very delicious, but totally deadly) so experiment with different spirits if that’s up your street. If you have a particularly sweet tooth then use lemonade instead of soda water, but personally I find this too much. As for the fruit, basically anything goes. We added peach in to this batch and it worked a treat, as would nectarine. Melon is a great addition to sangria, though some people don’t like the taste. I should probably tell you to get a half decent wine to use, and in fact a Rioja is a perfect option if you find a nice bottle, but really this is a great opportunity to use a cheaper wine. Once the fruit, spirits and soda have gone in, no one will be any wiser. Even more true after a couple of glasses have been quaffed.
Ingredients for homemade sangria
Ingredients
1 orange
2 lemons
Any other fruit you like e.g. apple, peach, melon
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp cointreau
70cl bottle of red wine, chilled
350ml soda water, chilled

Method
1. Chop the fruit into similarly sized pieces. Remove any pips from the lemons and orange, but leave the skin on.
Chopped fruit for sangria
2. Place the fruit into a large jug and pour over the sugar and spirits. Mix well and leave to marinade for at least an hour.
Marinading the fruit for sangria
3. Add the chilled red wine to the jug and leave for at least another half hour.
Adding red wine to the marinated fruit for sangria
4. When ready to serve top the sangria up with soda water. You can alter the quantities of soda water to your taste, depending on whether you like the sangria weaker or stronger.
Topping up the sangria with soda water
5. Fill glasses with ice and pour over the sangria with some fruit pieces.
Sangria
Serve as a punch at a party, with the main course of a Spanish meal or as an aperitif with olives, some sliced Manchego cheese and serrano ham or just some fresh crusty bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping. Close your eyes as you sip and you could nearly be on the beaches of Spain.